Decarbonising in place – the ‘smart energy systems’ conundrum

Decarbonising in place – the ‘smart energy systems’ conundrum

By Molly Webb, founder of Energy Unlocked, a not-for-profit working with industry and cities to accelerate decarbonisation and energy transitions

As we near the end of 2020, the start of a decade when we know that each year our action on climate change is critical to bending the emissions curve, and we must transition our energy systems at the core of that challenge, EnergyRev is providing much-needed insight into the ongoing research and development of ‘smart energy systems’.

As we have shown in our work for the Coalition for Urban Transitions, no two places will be able to take the convergent digital and decentralisation trends and create decarbonisation (and democratisation) in quite the same way. Systems change is also very slow, just when we feel the urgency to move rapidly to net zero.

As EnergyRev work shows, the converging trends of digital and decentralised technologies could be used to decarbonise and democratise the energy system. However, this is not a foregone conclusion.

The existing energy system is currently working well to deliver electricity and gas to nearly everyone who needs it. Climate change is creating an energy problem that is in no-one’s direct interest to solve.  Government is not set up to ensure that value from energy transition flows back to the consumers themselves because, for the moment, the value of energy is measured in kWh, not carbon avoided.

As we found in our Mayor of London’s ‘FlexLondon’ Challenge Programme, smart energy systems can be seen to be complex, scary or not worth the effort because the return on investment is not necessarily great enough for the end user/consumer who cares about many things aside from just saving energy. Somehow, solving energy transitions at least cost and lowest carbon needs to become everyone’s problem. Only then will we be able to find a solution.

It is very encouraging to see successful government-funded smart local energy systems projects under Prospering from the Energy Revolution, as EnergyRev is documenting. Where we go next is critical. We must move from trials to commercialisation. If we do not have smart local energy systems in future, a range of potential downsides emerge, chief among them that we do not have a net zero energy system fast enough or at an acceptable cost. We may risk lack of trust in an energy system which is ‘done to us’ rather than being seen as meeting complex needs, because energy provision today and in future will also need to be contributing to resiliency, avoided pollution and the needs of future citizens that aren’t yet known.

Where EnergyRev’s contribution would be vital is in addressing how we can scale up the trials that are ongoing today, with more engagement across industry and communities about the benefits we are missing out on if we move too slowly. Some key questions include ‘How have regulatory sandboxes supported scale?’, ‘How do different governance models build local value?’ and ‘How can we learn from international experience to ensure we are building globally relevant components even as we address the needs of local energy systems?’.

At Energy Unlocked, we have begun to dig more deeply into the market signals that will encourage finance and scale up of the low carbon technologies at the ‘grid edge’ such as demand response in buildings and batteries in cars or buildings. ‘Will pure carbon signals such as those created by National Grid ( be required in the short term to overcome the complexity of carbon pricing in existing tariffs even as we work to adapt pricing?’ ‘Will new certifications, standards or regulations be required to allow the investment in – and operation of – smart energy systems to drive down GHG emissions significantly each year?’.

The key to commercialising smart energy systems is to make it a matter for consumers. This means we need to marry our climate goals with removing subsidies where they are contrary to those goals (yes, we are still subsidising fossil fuels, and even our Covid recovery stimulus is amounting to billions more in subsidies), and begin to do more time and location-based accounting of carbon emissions so that the value of becoming a ‘decarbonising’ force in a building or community can be realised by those communities as well as the broader system. 

EnergyRev’s work is very useful in making transparent the learning coming from the projects. Now the hard work is how we as advocates, industry, local and national government take the learning into action.